This is tugh to check, but players at New Mexico State swear that the crowd at last year's homecoming game more than doubled after halftime. "It was 21-21 at the half," says Aggie tight end Todd Cutler, "and I guess people heard it on the radio and ran over to see if we could hold on. We came out for the second half, and the crowd had jumped from about 7,000 to about 17,000. I couldn't believe it."
Hey, Todd, if the good people of Las Cruces, N.Mex., had thought your Aggies could stay with heavily favored Fresno State for two quarters, they almost certainly would have been there for the kickoff. But over the years New Mexico State fans have learned to follow football the way physicists once watched the first A-bomb test at nearby Alamogordo—from a safe distance.
I mean, who wants to risk contamination? The two games the Aggies won last year—they lost to Fresno 42-28—were the most victories in a season since 1987. They have had only one winning season since 1967. They lost 27 straight from October '88 to November '90. The Aggies went to Kansas State two years ago when the hapless Wildcats were still reeling from the Futility U label put on them by this magazine and got beat 52-7. Long Beach State lost to the Aggies last year 28-24, then dropped football. If K-State was Futility U, New Mexico State is Ground Zero.
You have to feel sorry for coach Jim Hess, who has seen more wretched football in his two years at Las Cruces than he did in 15 years as a successful NAIA and Division I-AA coach. When he arrived, Hess inherited a 17-game losing streak. "This was the worst football program in America," he says. "Still may be." No argument here.
If Hess had known how bad, he might not have taken the job. He remembers the first play of his first spring practice, an end-over-end pass that landed three rows deep in the stands. An assistant coach, also witnessing his first Aggie practice, turned to him and said, "Lord have mercy on our souls." Then there was the time in 1990 that wide receiver Larry Harriston caught a pass against Tulsa and was racing down the sideline for the end zone, only to fall out of bounds without being touched. Stunned, Hess said, "Larry, I've been coaching football 30 years, and I have never seen anything like that."
Harriston said, "Coach, you haven't been an Aggie long enough."
In order to play football at New Mexico State you need a thick skin more than a thick neck. When Hess & Co. went up to Albuquerque last year to play New Mexico, Lobo fans wore T-shirts with the message WE MAY NOT WIN VERY MANY GAMES, BUT WE ALWAYS BEAT NEW MEXICO STATE! The year before, football pundits mocked the meeting of New Mexico State and likewise winless Cal State-Fullerton as the Game of the Weak and the Game of the Decayed.
For Hess, who coached Angelo State to the NAIA title in 1978 and later assembled an entire backfield of NFL draft choices at Stephen F. Austin, the challenge is daunting. "In college football you have 35 or 40 schools that are the haves, and there's a middle group that can go cither way," he says. "But that group in the third tier—nobody's interested in seeing them come up. They're the ones you beat 50-0 and run up your statistics on."
For a price, of course. This season New Mexico State is guaranteed $100,000 for a game at Kansas State and $200,000 for an appearance at Arizona—money that Hess needs to sustain his program. But 50-0 losses hamper recruiting and leave players physically and psychologically bruised. Three years ago Hess's predecessor, Mike Knoll, took the team to Norman, Okla. What ensued was a 73-3 rout before 73,000 roaring Sooner fans. "They threw us to the wolves," says defensive tackle Sam Austrino, who made his first college appearance in the blowout. "After the first quarter our whole defensive line was freshmen, because the coaches didn't want our regular people to get hurt."
The players make light of their predicament, but some can't hide their disillusionment. Cutler cried when the Aggies outplayed UTEP in last season's opener, only to lose 22-21. At least no one blames the current players for the program's decline, which began before they were born. You need a little gray in your hair to remember the Aggies of 30-plus years ago, led by Hall of Fame coach Warren Woodson, now 89 and retired in Texas. Led by running backs Bob Gaiters, Pervis Atkins and James (Preacher) Pilot, Woodson's teams led the nation in rushing from 1959 to '62, won two Sun Bowls and ran up a 16-game winning streak. In 1960 the Aggies went 11-0. The last tangible evidence of this winning tradition is a game ball on display in the office of athletic director Al Gonzales. The inscription reads, NOV. 18, 1967—AGGIES 54, LOBOS 7.